Album review: PAUL RODGERS – The Royal Sessions

Paul Rodgers - The Royal Sessions

429 Records [Release date 27.01.14]

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Paul Rodgers took himself off to Memphis in 2013 and recorded this homage to the golden age of soul, working with some of that genre’s legendary players.

It was soul and R&B that influenced the singer as he set off on his musical path in the late sixties, ultimately meeting up with Paul Kossoff to form Free in 1968.

Rodger’s soulful tones are put to great use on this 10-track pilgrimage.  This is the Willie Mitchell-inspired Hi-Records Memphis Sound so the atmosphere is a little less earthy and a little smoother than mainstream R&B but arguably a little more bluesy and with its roots in gospel.  And, as you would expect, Rodgers doesn’t try to ape his heroes but merely stamps his distinctive mark on the proceedings.

The album is perhaps best considered alongside Rodger’s tribute to his blues influences back in 1996.  Rodgers does the genre proud and makes it all sound effortless, whether it’s the Ann Peebles classic ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ or the surprise inclusion of ‘Walk On By’.

There are no originals here but just impressive renderings of some soul standards and proceeds will go to music education programs in Memphis.

Recorded organically with a live band (essentially surviving members of the famed Hi Rhythm Section) and on analogue equipment at the hallowed Royal Studios, the album also harks back to a simpler age and is no less charming for that.  Indeed, an age when singers were singers and Rodgers’ deft interpretation a wake up call and road map for a younger generation of aspiring vocalists and reality-show wannabes.  ****

Review by David Randall

David Randall presents ‘Assume The Position’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Sunday at 22:00 GMT.

Pete Feenstra writes

A celebration of the golden era of Memphis soul and r&b with a little blues on the side, is usually a signal of an artist running out of material. Happily ‘The Royal Sessions’ is no such thing, rising above such concerns, as Paul Rodgers draws on some of his original musical influences to bring a passionate and authentic reading of some classic material

The triumvirate at the core of this album is producer Perry A. Margouleff – who originally had the idea to record at the former Hi studios – a band, that includes the Rev. Charles Hodges Sr. on Hammond, Leroy Hodges on bass and guitarist Michael Toles, as part of a roster of 24 musicians, and of course Rodgers himself, whose feel and enduring ability as an interpretive singer sparks the whole thing into life.

Who but Rodgers could shift from fronting Queen to working with the Trans Siberian Orchestra and then reprising Bad Company, before reaching back to his formative musical influences?

Right from the count-in at the top of the album, this analogue recording has an organic feel. Described in the liner notes as: ‘a lifetime in the making’, Paul’s vocal dominates the opening track ‘I Thank You’. It’s a ‘kitchen sink and all’ soulful introduction, which benefits from some beefed up horns, a crisp rhythm section and bv’s. He’s equally expressive on the horn-led Albert King classic ‘Down Don’t Bother Me’, on a perfect meeting of band and vocalist.

There are no real surprises here, as the album works its way through a set list that used to be the meat and potatoes of the long gone pub circuit. It’s testament to Paul’s intuitive phrasing and soulful feel that he can re-invigorate the material and inject it with a new focus and intensity.

It helps of course that the project is recorded at a legendary studio and with some of the musicians who played on the original tracks. The result is a perfect meeting of Rogers’ confident vocal attack and the band’s intuitive ability to percolate a groove.

The overall success of ‘The Royal Sessions’ is reflected by the flow of the album, which picks up imperceptibly on a cover of Ann Peebles ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’.  The band’s relaxed funky groove is taken to another level by Rodger’s authentic vocal. He elongates the occasional vowel and ad-libs intuitively to get the best performance out of his superlative backing band and producer Perry Margouleff’s tight arrangements.

‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ features a perfect resolution to the band’s impressive synergy, as they build up a perfectly nuanced climax to the song. Similarly, on ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, there’s a feeling of understated power, if not swagger, as Rodgers revels in the dynamic horn arrangement on a powerful soul ballad perfectly suited to his range.

And then as if to re-emphasize the integral flow of the album, producer Margouleff drops in an unexpected string arrangement with startling bv’s and a wah-wah inflected guitar intro on a cool jazzy version of ‘Walk On By’. It’s an album highlight, both for the imaginative arrangement and Roger’s perfect vocal which is arguably one of the best white boy soul performances since the early days of Van Morrison.

Not all of Paul’s song choices are as good, with both the Cropper/Redding penned ‘Any Ole Way’ and the Smokey Robinson penned Temptations hit ‘It’s Growing’, both given much needed spark by the pumping horns and Rodgers ability to immerse himself in the song and make the best of his own choices.

A strident version of ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ works much better, with Rodgers magnificent vocal matched all the way by the band’s funky back beat and another muscular horn arrangement. It’s the perfect example of a cover being given fresh impetus by the majesty of the performance and the feel of the players, as evidenced by guitarist Michael Toles’s sinewy, defining guitar solo.

Ultimately, ‘The Royal Sessions’ might be judged by how often you return to it is as an exemplar of Memphis soul. Paul Rogers effortless crosses the prickly dividing line between a white boy rock singer and deep Memphis soul and on that basis alone, this album convinces enough to warrant a warm recommendation.  ****

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 22 May.

Next session: Sunday 17 July.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 19 June 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 21 June 2022.

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